A Human Rights Approach to Sept. 11

As we try to come to grips with the tragedy of September 11, as individuals and as social scientists, a human rights approach can provide some guidance. A human rights approach always begins with, and has as its essence a concern with individual victims of rights abuses. We turn first to the victims of the September 11 attack and their families and friends. The enormity of the loss of life, and the premeditated nature of the attacks on September 11th justifies calling them a crime against humanity. Murder, when “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population” is a crime against humanity. 1 The victims of this crime are entitled not only to our deepest sympathy, but also to justice, either in the our courts or in an international tribunal.

When I worked on human rights in Latin America I came to understand the human rights situation in Argentina or Chile or El Salvador by learning the names and stories of individual victims. In some cases, I met their family members. In the same spirit, I try to start understanding the tragedy of September 11th through the stories of the people who have lost their lives, in New York, Washington, D.C. or in Afghanistan. Yes, there are differences, but the pain each family feels at the loss of its loved one, and its desire for justice are as deep as victims of rights abuses feel throughout the world.

Often as social scientists we skip over this first step of starting with the victims and their families. We are trained to explain phenomena using abstract theories. It is second nature to us to immediately ask “why” and begin the search for deep and proximate causes of puzzling events. It may be useful, especially when speaking to the public, to preface our search for explanations with some prior comments. First, a search for explanation does not imply justification. There is no justification for such acts. Nor does any explanation remove the perpetrators’ moral and legal responsibility for these criminal acts. Hannah Arendt was concerned about exactly such a point in the last pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem. She wrote: “Another such escape from the area of ascertainable facts and personal responsibility are the countless theories, based on non-specific, abstract, hypothetical assumptions…. which are so general that they explain and justify every event and every deed: no alternative to what actually happened is even considered and no person could have acted differently from the way he did act….. All these cliches have in common that they make judgment superfluous and that to utter them is devoid of all risk.” She says that such theorizing is a symptom of “the reluctance evident everywhere to make judgments in terms of individual moral responsibility.” 2 In this vein, we need to begin by stating that the crimes of September 11th were consciously committed by individuals who could have chosen to act differently, and who bear moral and legal responsibility for their actions. Human rights law provides the international standards to make judgments about individual responsibility. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the statutes of ad-hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia move us away from any notion of collective guilt or responsibility by focusing on individual legal responsibility for crimes.

Having recognized the perspective of the victims, we still need to turn to explanation. I find the literature on the causes of human rights violations useful for thinking about what leads to attacks of this sort. This research tries to identify under what conditions governments and people will commit large scale murder, torture, and arbitrary imprisonment. It both helps us understand the reasons for such acts and provides some guidance for policies to prevent future human rights violations. The findings indicate that authoritarianism, war, and poverty can lead to large scale human rights violations. 3 Because authoritarianism and human rights violations are linked, it ultimately is counterproductive to fight terrorism by supporting and arming authoritarian regimes. But we also shouldn’t be too optimistic that we can improve the situation quickly simply by encouraging countries to democratize. Although democracies have better human rights records than authoritarian regimes, during the process of transition to democracy, ethnic conflict and related human rights violations often increase. 4 Perhaps the strongest finding of the quantitative literature on repression is that there is a strong connection between war and human rights violations. Decades of civil war in Afghanistan created conditions where terrorism and human rights violations flourished prior to the attacks of September 11th. The legacy of war, authoritarianism, and poverty will make it difficult for any post-Taliban regime to protect human rights and establish the rule of law.

Certain kinds of ideas can also lead to human rights violations. Studies of genocide show how ideas that dehumanize other people can exclude them “from the realm of human obligation.” 5 These ideas can help people believe that it is acceptable, even desirable to kill others. We must be very careful that our response to human rights violations does not serve simultaneously to dehumanize others and in turn make it possible for people to commit crimes against them.

Whatever the deep causes of terrorism, such as war and authoritarianism, the proximate reason is surely a set of ideas – in this case a set of religious ideas. The individuals responsible for crimes against humanity of September 11 believed that their cause was so righteous that they were called upon to murder others in its name. This belief is not unique to a particular strand of extremist Islam. It was a basis for violence in Christianity for many centuries and is still used by some extremist Christians (for example, those who bombed abortion clinics) to justify violence. These religious ideas are a subset of a wider set of ideas, often utopian ideas, that have been frequently associated with extreme human rights violations. I refer to them as “ends-justify-the-means ideas.” Pascal recognized the power of such ideas to generate terror when he said “Never does man do evil more fully and joyfully than in the service of high ideals.” (Jamais on ne fait le mal si pleinement et si gaiement que quand on le fait par conscience.”) Not all utopian ideas or high ideals are suspect, but rather those with this familiar “ends- justify-the-means” logic. In these ideologies some desired endpoint – Aryan race, pure communist society, or Western and Christian civilization – is so compelling that highly repressive means are seen as necessary for achieving those ends. Studies of ideologies as diverse as Nazism, that of Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, and the National Security Doctrine of the repressive authoritarian regimes in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, have identified these ends-justify-the-means processes in action. We might say that this was also the logic behind the U.S. decision to drop the atomic bomb on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The goal of bringing WWII to an end was seen as so compelling that it justified dropping bombs on two large cities and killing over 100,000 people, most of them civilians.

What does it mean if the proximate reason for the terrorist attacks is a particular set of ideas, ideas that share a logic with past ideas also associated with devastating violations of human rights? First, our response and the response of our government must not be based on ideas that replicate this same ends-justify-the means-logic. We can not justify dehumanizing our opponents or excluding any individuals from “the realm of human obligation.” When the FBI floats the idea of using torture to wrest information for detainees, or when we disregard the impact of our bombing campaign on civilians, we too are using an ends-justify-the-means argument. 6 We need to fight these arguments when we find them.

The best way to fight ideas is not to suppress them. Suppressed ideas have an odd way of gaining more power. A human rights approach is committed to free speech, free religion, and a free press. Within this context of free expression, we must contest intellectually and politically ends-justify-the-means ideas, whether held by bin Laden or John Ashcroft. President Bush’s statement that “we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and the those who harbored them,” taken to its logical conclusions also implies an ends-justify-the-means logic. Human Rights Watch recognized this and effectively contested this idea one day later. “Yet distinctions must be made; between the guilty and the innocent; between the perpetrators and the civilians who may surround them; between those who commit atrocities and those who may simply share their religious beliefs, ethnicity, and national origin. People committed to justice and law and human rights must never descend to the level of the perpetrators of such acts.”

Finally, what does a human rights perspective provide in terms of thinking about responses to the attacks of September 11? A vigorous international and domestic crime fighting campaign is necessary to investigate the crimes of September 11th, bring the perpetrators to justice, and to prevent future crimes of this nature. Coordinated international campaigns to track down the criminals, stop their sources of finance and weapons, and break their networks are essential. A human rights approach also reminds us to be especially vigilant about attempts to violate basic rights in this country or in any other country in the name of the struggle against terrorism.

In response to the unprecedented attacks of September 11th, the U.S. government has launched a new campaign against terrorism, reminiscent in its breadth and fervor to the anti-communists campaigns of the Cold War. We have yet to see clearly how this campaign will play itself out. But the story of U.S. policy towards Latin America over the last 25 years has much to offer people thinking about the new campaign against terrorism. In Latin America, our government’s struggles against communism sometimes led it to commit, support, and justify crimes. With classic ends-justify-the-means logic, we overthrew democratic governments and supported authoritarian ones that murdered their own citizens. The language that some members of our government, press, and members of the public are now using is similar to the language used by authoritarian regimes in Latin America to justify human rights violations. One of the most troubling issues in the wake of the September 11th attacks has been the willingness of certain news commentators to suggest that the U.S. should use torture to gather information from detainees. 7 Human rights law permits the suspension of certain rights in cases of “public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.” But these suspensions are limited by the requirement that they be “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” And violations of some rights, such as the right to be free from torture and cruel and unusual punishment are not permitted in any circumstances. For many decades authoritarian leaders around the world have been saying that torture is necessary to gather information to prevent future terrorist attacks. There is virtually no evidence that torture serves this information gathering purpose. There is ample evidence, however, that once a government starts to torture, it begins to use it routinely against a range of detainees. Another clear lesson from Latin America is that covert operations have been the most pernicious exercises of U.S. policy in the region. U.S. covert action against the Allende regime contributed to the rise of Pinochet. The U.S. covert operation that helped overthrow the elected Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954 set in motion a 25 year cycle of increasingly repressive military regimes that eventually culminated in the genocide of 1980-1982. The 1954 covert operation against Arbenz was the twin of a similar covert operation in 1953 against the democratically elected leftist government of Muhammad Mossadeq in Iran that set into motion a similar downward spiral with far reaching effects for the Iranian people and the whole region. In another odd twist linking the two regions, the fundamentalist government of Iran made a willing partner for yet another covert operation, the Iran-Contra clandestine sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of profits to right wing contra rebels in Nicaragua. This makes me particularly alarmed that some policy makers and academics are calling for a reinvigoration of covert action in U.S. policy. 8 Overt policies where the press, our allies, NGOs and the American public can observe, critique, or applaud the actions and their consequences are not only more democratic, but they have been more successful in producing viable policy in the long term.

A human rights approach does not necessarily rule out a military response. Indeed, much of the criticism of the failure of the response of the U.N. and of governments to the genocide in Rwanda turns on their refusal to use military force to prevent genocide. But the social science literature showing that war contributes to human rights violations should make us extremely cautious about a military solution. Is the remedy actually exacerbating the very problem it is aimed to solve? A human rights approach commits us to deep concern for the civilian victims of the bombing raids in Afghanistan. Under humanitarian law civilians can not be military targets, and combatants need to make efforts to protect civilians. The Geneva Conventions empower the Red Cross to act in times of war to protect civilians and medical personnel. Our bombing, not once but twice, of Red Cross warehouses in Kabul is thus deeply symbolic of the more general failure of the bombing campaign to protect and spare civilians. The U.S. military have clarified that they are making efforts to avoid civilian deaths. We judge differently the responsibility of those making efforts to avoid civilian deaths from those whose main goal is provoking civilian deaths. But for the Afghani parent who has lost a child to U.S. bombing raids, such distinctions provide no comfort. Military methods that inevitably lead to significant civilian deaths are inconsistent with a human rights approach, regardless of the intentions of the planners.

The most disturbing recent development is President Bush’s announcement that he will order non-citizens to undergo trial in military courts if there is reason to believe that the individual is a member of the Al-Qaida terrorist organization. Not only does this move undermines our commitment to civil liberties and rule of law, but it is unnecessary. In the last decade, states have innovated solutions for pursuing justice for exactly these kinds of crimes, including domestic trials, trials in foreign courts, and international tribunals. The most far reaching of these – the International Criminal Court – has yet to be established, and could not, in any case, try cases that happened before it came into being. The U.S. has not ratified the ICC Statute, and certain members of the U.S. Congress are actively hostile to the idea. If these crimes had been committed after the Court entered into force, and if the U.S. had ratified the Treaty, the ICC could have been the obvious and most legitimate place to try perpetrators of crimes against humanity. This should make U.S. policy makers rethink their position on the ICC. We do need international institutions to help us – not only to find the intellectual authors of this crime, but also to bring them to justice with the greatest legitimacy. The Security Council could set up a Special Tribunal to try perpetrators of terrorism, much as they set up the ad-hoc war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. A special tribunal would have the virtue of requiring us to think about the tragedy as a crime carried out by specific individuals who have legal responsibility for the act. By thinking about the tragedy as a crime against humanity, we can refrain from thinking about collective guilt of the Afghani people, or Islamic fundamentalists. An international tribunal would also underscore that this kind of attack is of concern to all countries, not only the United States. It would build the confidence of our allies and world public opinion that people accused of terrorism would receive a fair and impartial trial. The struggle we face is not mainly a military one, but a struggle about ideas and public opinion. Our commitment to civil liberties and rule of law is an essential part of our identity and should not be squandered by some of the short sighted policies of this administration.

  1. Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 1998 (U.N. Doc. A/CONF.183/9)
  2. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (NY: Penguin, 1964), p. 297.
  3. See, for example, Steven Poe and C. Neal Tate, “Human Rights and Repression to Personal Integrity in the 1980s: A Global Analysis,” American Political Science Review 88 (1994): 853-72; and Steven Poe, C. Neal Tate, and Linda Camp Keith, “Repression of the Human Rights to Personal Integrity Revisited: A Global Crossnational Study Covering the Years 1976-1993,” International Studies Quarterly 43 (1999): 291-315
  4. Jack Snyder, From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.
  5. Helen Fein, Genocide: A Sociological Perspective London: Sage, 1993.
  6. “Silence of Four Terror Probe Suspects Poses Dilemma for FBI,” Washington Post October 21st, 2001, A6.
  7. “Torture Seeps Into Discussion by News Media,” New York Times 11/5/01, p. C1.
  8. See, for example, John Mearshimer, “Guns Won’t Win the Afghan War,” New York Times, 11/4/01 calling for diplomacy and covert action to oust Al Qaeda.